Alas, Dear Camelot, We Knew Ye Well
By CHARLES CANTRELL
FROM START TO FINISH: (Top) Judging from the cars in this picture, it was taken in the late 1960s soon after the Camelot had opened its doors to excited Tulsans and to very receptive interstate travelers along I-44. The “Total Electric??? on the sign was eventually removed to make way for the Parkside sign. (Bottom) Older Tulsans bid the Camelot farewell after its many years of great times and fond memories. Demolition of the structure was completed in January and will make way for Tulsa-based QuikTrip to build on the site.
Today there is a void where a Tulsa landmark once stood. Demolition of the Camelot, once known as Camelot Inn, then Camelot Hotel and finally Camelot Parkside Hotel, was recently completed, clearing the way for Tulsa-based QuikTrip to build on the property where I-44 crosses over South Peoria. All the name and ownership changes over the years were not enough to save the unique structure from the insidious effects of time and apathy. But for many older Tulsans, memories of the Camelot will live on long after the rubble has been removed and replaced by a shiny new structure.
Construction on the castle-like building began in 1965 by a builder and promoter from San Francisco named Ainsley Perault. It took two years to complete the eight-story, 330 room pink castle complete with turrets, massive iron gates, a moat with drawbridge entrance and a swimming pool shaped like the top of a medieval spear. Adding to the motif was what would become the “place to be” in Tulsa, the Red Lion Club, a gathering place where many a knight would meet his fair maiden.
Perault’s choice of locations for the Camelot couldn’t have been better. Situated adjacent to the relatively new interstate highway, it presented a somewhat stunning visual departure from garden variety travel lodges, and it was accessible by way of one of the cities principle thoroughfares. It served to capture both local residents and folks just passing through. And it had something for the whole family. It was a mix somewhere between Disneyland and the Waldorf only without Mickey and not nearly as expensive. Everyone loved the Camelot.
Tulsa-based Kinark Corporation loved it enough to purchase the property from Peault in 1968 for a whopping $68 million. At the time, it was the largest real estate purchase in the history of Tulsa. It also marked the beginning of the golden era for the roadside hotel and meeting place.
The new owners launched a multimedia campaign promoting the pink castle featuring the high quality hospitality and food service of the Camelot. Across the city billboards could be seen shouting “Camelot Tonight.” Pictured on the billboards was the new Hotel’s executive chef offering a tantalizing entree to the viewer. Anyone still not in the know was informed – good food and fun could be found at Tulsa’s premier hotel. The Camelot would ride the success of this marketing effort for the next two decades.
Over the years different Tulsans remember different amenities offered by the Camelot. Joshua Beck, curator at Tulsa Historic Society, remembers weekend family trips to Tulsa from their home in Pryor in the early 1980s to stay at the Camelot just for the fun of it. It was there he got his first glimpse of MTV. It was a monumental moment in his life.
“MTV blew my mind. I stayed up all night watching it. It was like nothing I’d ever seen, music and video. We didn’t get it at home, but they had it at the Camelot.”
Many remember the Sunday brunch at the Camelot. It was quite an event drawing between 200 and 300 people regularly. Those who could not make it to the Camelot could watch a weekly television show broadcast from the Camelot on a cable access channel featuring Tulsa’s local movers and shakers.
In its heyday, the Camelot even drew celebrities the likes of which the city has rarely seen since. President Richard Nixon stayed there on a trip to Tulsa to dedicate the Kerr-McClellan navigation system in 1971. The famous musical trio Peter Paul and Mary was rumored to have stay there as well as the King himself, Elvis Presley, during their touring days. Broadcast journalist Mike Wallace chose to stay there. Even a high-ranking member of the British Parliament stayed at the Camelot and, it was rumored, was amused by the contradictory Robin Hood and King Arthur exhibits in the hotel. Into the mid 1970s the Camelot was the city’s premier place to be and be seen, but all that began to change due to circumstances far beyond the control of the regal Camelot.
The shine began to tarnish slightly in the late 1970s, but when the 1980s came and the oil bust cast a dark spell on the city, even the magic of the castle couldn’t contend. Like an evil dragon, a severe recession made its lair in Tulsa. It didn’t help that competing luxury hotels in and about the city had come on line in the prosperous 1970s and begun to steal away market share. The mood of the city in the decade of the 1980s changed from exuberance to pessimism and foreboding – not the kind of atmosphere conducive to an enterprise whose motif was rooted in whimsy and fantasy. It all conspired to make Tulsa’s beloved castle less and less relevant in the Tulsa market.
The aging structure began to demand more and more attention and resources to be maintain. Bad and often inexplicable things occurred to further sully the image of the grand hotel. Several air conditioning units exploded during a science fiction convention held by a group called Okon, helping fan rumors that the hotel was no longer safe. The Red Lion Club fell out of favor with the in-crowd. The interior begin to fade and tatter. Local civic groups held on for a while, holding their monthly meetings amidst the declining ambiance until they too finally gave up on the old castle. Once the hangers-on left, that was all she wrote for the Camelot, and yet there remained one more sad chapter.
In the late 1990s the structure languished on the once vibrant property. It was handed off from realtor to realtor and owner to owner each as hopeful as the last that someone would come forth and save the hotel. It was condemned in 1996 as unfit for occupancy. For a brief time in 2002, hope rose in the hearts of Camelot lovers that the castle might have found a savior in the form of a new owner, Maharishi Ayur-ved University, a school for teaching transcendental meditation, including the teachings of the founder of Transcendental Meditation, the Maharishi Mahesh Yoga. But alas, articles published in the press, including GTR Newspapers, casted doubt on the project. The City filed liens against the owners every year from 2000-2004 for cleanup and mowing. The liens were eventually paid, but nothing came of the owner’s goal to turn the medieval hotel into the “Peace Palace.” The bizarre episode turned out to be little more than a lot of salt in an already festering wound.
Chronicling the life cycle of Tulsa’s Camelot Hotel over the last four decades in many ways parallels the changes experienced by the city. Starting in the wild and crazy 1960s, into the prosperous 1970s, stumbling through the torturous 1980s, dormant in the 1990s. Finally in the new millennium, the site makes way for a new structure built by one of Tulsa’s finest corporate citizens, QuikTrip, who has managed not only to weather but prosper through the same time period and who will no doubt do the site justice.